Identity is a burden. Strange way of putting it. Culture and civilization are almost inextricably linked to this dynamic at various levels of our being. Our self-conscious mode of existence makes us claim, “I am this” or “I am that”….”I am…….”—fill in the blank any way you want. I am healthy. I am beautiful. I am wise. I am an American. I am a Christian. I am wealthy. I have gone to an elite school. I drive a Mercedes. I am good at…. I am devout. I am a monk. I am one of the poor. Etc., etc. We invariably make such claims as our identity one way or another. Because we are in history and social beings with self-awareness, we develop these various “markers.” There is this mysterious mirror of sorts that we constantly look into to see who we are. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the….of them all?” Indeed. Some of these identities are obviously very superficial, others seemingly very deep, and some are “truly me”—so you think.
It is not the truth or factuality of such a statement that is in question. We are in fact a certain “somebody” with some markers of various sorts and in a sense we belong to a certain group and share certain features with other members of this group, but all this becomes a real burden when such an identity statement becomes another possession that will need protecting, guarding, holding onto—in other words that this is my core reality, the “real me.” But in fact all identities that we can look at and claim are “loseable” and therefore a source of a very deep anxiety because we believe we stop existing once they are “not there”—especially the so-called deep ones. Also the bewildering thing is that this burden will be the same no matter how I fill in the blank. “I am a hermit who spends his time praying.” Or: “I am a businessman who spends his time making as much money as I can.” Really, “good identity” or “bad identity” does not matter in a sense. That dynamic of claiming to be “this” or “that”, to be “somebody” is in itself the burden that needs to be addressed.
Pop culture thrives on this dynamic. There is a fancy slick magazine with a big ad: BE SOMEBODY. Perhaps you will recall that old movie, “On the Waterfront.” The Marlon Brando character is lamenting to his brother about how his brother had betrayed him, “I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody.” Within the context of society, it is truly death to be nobody. In order to be “somebody,” society gives you a number(actually many numbers); it points at you with a certain name and a certain description; it invites you to be unique through its various accouterments; it urges you to promote yourself through a resume; it holds up a mirror of pop culture for you to look at yourself and hopefully to gain approval; etc. etc. This identity thing is the most addictive thing there is. And here I will repeat my favorite quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “A guy with the gambling sickness loses his shirt every night in a poker game. Somebody tells him that the game is crooked, rigged to send him to the poorhouse. And he says, haggardly, ‘I know, I know. But it is the only game in town.’” The identity game seems to be the only game in town. So it is played, and so much of modern life depends on this playing. Thus we end up inevitably being “losers.” The game is fixed. We can’t help but lose. Thus that burden of the deep anxiety because all “possessions” will invariably be lost.
There are these “thieves” who can come and steal away these kinds of possessions: illness, criticism, getting old, a failure in some endeavor, etc. etc. But the biggest and most comprehensive and most unavoidable thief is Death. No identity that shows up in that mirror can survive this thief. I say “unavoidable” because in fact so much of modern psychic life is energized by a fear of death, by a denial of death. Who am I after I lose all these identities? Now every spiritual tradition addresses this issue in one way or another. We have already touched on this subject in a previous posting in the series: Foundations & Fundamentals: The Self, and really all over the place because this is such a central topic in any serious spirituality. The identity game must be left behind; the mirror must be shattered; the knot of identity must be undone and dissolved. But how? Social identity will always be there one way or another, but it is the sense of self that is at stake. If our sense of self is misidentified as one of these “loseable” realities, we are lost in this game. A kind of liberation is called for.
Recall the language of apophasis, as in apophatic theology and apophatic mysticism. It speaks of the ultimate unknowability of God, of God as Ultimate Mystery. Whatever we say of God, there has to be a kind of unsaying because God is not this or that. In other words the identity of God is not graspable by us in any way, but we will gain more and more of this knowledge through eternity and yet never reach the end. The most radical apophatic mysticism can be found in Christian mysticism from Pseudo-Dionysius to John of the Cross and in Hindu mysticism in the Upanishads. The “neti, neti” of the latter text is a radical “unsaying” of whatever it is that we affirm of God. Now if we push this a bit further, we will see that our own identity, in its truth and essence, is lost in the Mystery of God, and that also is not graspable as some kind of social identity. Thus there is a very real apophasis of identity for us. Our true identity which nothing and no one can take away is lost in the Mystery of God where we are “neither two, nor one” with Him. The reality is unsayable.
Think of Jesus in the Gospels. All kinds of identity statements there—the game is being played with great vigor: Son of Man, Son of God, Son of David, prophet, Nazarene, “Joseph’s son,” “messiah,” “the one who is to come,” etc., etc. But in the midst of all these “sayings of identity” there is interwoven a kind of “unsaying of identity.” The whole pericope about the Temptation in the Desert is a kind of purging of false or superficial identities. Ultimately this leads to the Cross where all superficial identities and so-called deep identities are wiped out. And the Gospels have this repeated invitation to “this Cross,” the “narrow gate,” the “eye of the needle,” etc. It is too often assumed that the dispossession that Jesus talks about is simply external things. These are there but they are more like a pointer to the fundamental dispossession of identity that is truly a huge burden on our being, which we hardly recognize until the moment of liberation.
When Jesus invites his disciples to be “like little children,” he is not inviting them to an infantile regression or to make pious faces(as Merton would put it) in a kind of make-believe humility. The child in that social setting was not the same as the child today—he/she had absolutely no social standing until they entered adulthood. The child was literally a “nobody” until he/she entered adulthood through some initiation. Thus this is an invitation to a kind of “nobodyness.” Or at the very least of a true stripping of all these social facades that we hold so dear. Then there is the place in the Gospels where Jesus invites us to trade the kind of “treasure” that “moth and rust” can eat away or a thief can steal away for the “treasure” that cannot be so affected. Among other things this is an invitation to a new sense of identity, to one that cannot be lost to any thief or process. Finally he also invites us to lay down our “heavy burden” and pick up his “burden and yoke” which is easy and light. Again, it is a shift in our awareness of who we really our. Our real identity is in Christ, or in our oneness with Christ in our hearts and this is untouchable by any thief, even death. As St. Paul tells it, put on the mind of Christ. Consider now this quote from Paul (Romans 8: 35-39):
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul is pointing at our real identity which is one with Christ, which makes us inseparable from him and so plunged into the total Mystery of God which in the language of the New Testament is called “Father,” “Abba.” The Ultimate Mystery is brought “home,” brought into an intimate relationship of unspeakable unity. No matter how eloquent Paul is about all this, I still think our Sufi friends put it as well if not better. Consider this quote from Bukhari(81:38): “When I [Allah] love my servant…I become the hearing with which he hears, the seeing with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, the feet with which he walks, the tongue with which he speaks.” The “I” which we treasure so much, dress up so much with so many identities, which is such a big burden then, becomes extinguished as it were; and the “I” of God takes over the whole being. We dare go no further in our language!